MS Word Skills Assessment and the Need for Continuous Learning

Article by Donna T. Richardson

Image of Donna T Richardson

Donna T Richardson

Four questions every savvy technical writer asks of themselves?

Let’s face it, Microsoft Word (Word) is probably the most commonly used word processor in the world.  Because most businesses use the Office suite of applications, technical writers must periodically assess their mastery of Word skills against the latest version of the most important tool in their professional writing arsenal.  At a minimum, they can continue on their skills development journey by answering the following questions of themselves:

  1. Will your self-taught skills cut it in today’s writing profession?

Most users learned Word by fudging their way through the tool under pressure to create a document for an immediate need.  Help screens, web searches, and YouTube videos, Dummies paperbacks have certainly helped many users to complete a specific Word task or function.  The question you must ask yourself is:  Has your expertise really improved?

As a self-taught Word practitioner, my Word skills inventory expands incrementally with every Google search.  The problem with this strategy is that it is a time suck and it creates a fragmented and disconnected skills proficiency.

  1. Got a complex idea?

Adult learning experts agree that in today’s knowledge economy, adults must continue to grow their skill sets if they are to remain relevant and gainfully employed.  One broadly accepted theme in current adult learning theory is the importance of visual aids to drive understanding of complex ideas in written content.

Graphical representations of new, ambiguous, and intricate ideas help readers grasp new concepts much more quickly than by text alone.  The adage “Seeing is believing” is more than an old expression for technical writers.  Graphics – in one form or another – provide visual representations that add concept clarity for readers. They also break up dense text to make pages more appealing.  Even more, when technical writers can depict complex ideas visually, their understanding of an idea is improved.

Word makes the task of inserting high-quality graphics into documents quick and easy.  Most technical writers who have used Word probably are comfortable with copy and paste tasks or inserting basic tables into their documents.  But today’s technical writers must do more than add a heading with series of columns and rows underneath.  Word has built-in customizable templates that make adding interesting and well-designed graphics a requirement for a variety of document types.  As technical writers, we are challenged to integrate meaningful visual aids that pique the readers’ interest and insight.

The additional clincher:  Technical writers are pressed to deliver exceptional documents within shrinking time constraints.

  1. Are you constantly curious?

Do you ever wonder if there is an easier way to accomplish a writing task than your current approach?  There have been many times when I grew increasingly frustrated with a formatting (or another seemingly simple) task that must have required a simple click or two to complete.  I have fumbled my way through Word believing my self-taught approach would get me through a task successfully.

Maybe this tactic works now and again, but mastery of an evolving tool requires that technical writers remain motivated to continually improve their skillsets and their documents.  Functionality that was included in Word a few years ago has undoubtedly changed in the current product. A purpose-driven learning approach offers the best opportunity to learn and apply new features. Without a drive to remain current, Word users risk missing opportunities to broaden their expertise.  Staying abreast of the latest functions (and fixes) is a career requirement.

  1. Think time is on your side?

I have over a decade of experience writing a wide variety of project documents, research studies, white papers, manuals, user guides, and more.  For most of my career, the quality of my written content was the most important measure of a well-developed deliverable.  Today, exceptional writing is just as critical as it ever was but with the expanding features of Word, business expectations of the final product are higher than ever.

As mentioned above, technical writers must make text clear and compelling, they must support complex text with visuals that improve understanding, and they are expected to make document pages visually appealing for their readers.  The additional clincher:  Technical writers are pressed to deliver exceptional documents within shrinking time constraints.

Start managing these challenges today:  Learn from technical writing leaders in your community.

I took the challenge to assess my Word skills and reached out to the STC Carolina Chapter for resources.  I registered for and completed a recently held MS Word workshop (Making Beautiful and Usable Documents in Microsoft Word).  Students were encouraged to bring their own laptops for full class participation.  It was a four-hour course held at a local university campus which was a perfect accommodation for learning.  The instructor (Christina Mayr) demonstrated expertise and comfort in teaching Word, other tools in the MS Office suite, and several other tools of the trade.

After reading the course summary, I thought I had a good idea of what the course takeaways would be.  The workshop exceeded my expectations in several ways.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a room full of experienced technical writers hungry for a lecture that promised Word skills development.  The course moved quickly, given the array of new skills included in workshop objectives, but each student was encouraged to ask questions as necessary.  Their questions spawned brief classroom discussions that confirmed understanding or gave way to additional research and practice after the workshop.  Before we realized it, the course period was over.  I recall most students participating in the lecture and several others expressing interest in knowing more.  This investment in my career was well worth the fee.